Emory Students for Justice In Palestine (ESJP) claims that people having honest conversations with people of different perspectives is actually “a guise to control and silence those speaking the truth about the state of Israel.” We believe that people meeting in good faith to share their different views in order to find common ground is virtuous. We find ESJP’s belief to be alarming, ahistorical and antithetical to academic values.
First, we acknowledge that ESJP has previously been the target of smears, mischaracterization and bullying, including by Islamophobic blogger Pamela Gellar. We as Jews reject this attack on ESJP, as well as hateful attempts by people and organizations outside Emory to use occurrences on our campus for their own gain.
However, we also acknowledge that ESJP has proven incapable of having difficult conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without employing stereotypes. They’ve shared cartoons from an artist who participated in an Iranian Holocaust cartoon competition; accused their fellow students and the Emory administration of being under the spell of an Israeli “program” and notably said the quiet part out loud: they do not believe Israel has a right to exist. They don’t believe that the Jewish people deserve the right to self-determination. This is literally textbook anti-Semitism. Part of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism is “making allegations about the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.” These views should be beyond the pale and viewed as extremist, but the opposite has happened. The Wheel has awarded them credibility, and a portion of the student population undoubtedly believes this is all fine.
Although saddening, tolerance of these views makes sense in the context of what Jews are facing: rising anti-Semitism. According to FBI statistics, hate crimes against Jews rose by more than one-third in 2017 and accounted for 58 percent of all religion-based hate crimes in the United States. In New York City, anti-Semitic hate crimes have risen by more than 63 percent in 2019 and make up more than half of all reported hate crimes within the city. Earlier this month, a bomb plot on a Colorado synagogue was foiled. Jews in America are facing threats that years ago we would have thought unimaginable. And while anti-Semitism may be more deadly on the right, it still rears its ugly head on the left. So when we Jews overwhelmingly say that anti-Semitism is occurring, please believe us like you’d believe any other group that’s facing bigotry and assaults upon its core beliefs.
ESJP cited Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) belief that “the struggle against anti-Semitism is also the struggle for Palestinian freedom.” It is true that many right-wing anti-Semites wish to deny Palestinians their freedom. But ESJP failed to learn the other lessons that the unwavering liberal, self-proclaimed democratic socialist and Jewish senator argued: “criticism of Israel can cross the line into anti-Semitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews, or when it plays into conspiracy theories about outsized Jewish power.” ESJP denies Israel’s right to exist and accused Israel of masterminding a conspiracy, aligning with Sanders’ warnings.
ESJP has remained skeptical of dialogue by calling it “a means of violence.” This position is antithetical to the values of higher education. The cornerstone of the college experience is conversation in which your beliefs may be challenged. It is through honest discussion of multiple divergent perspectives and the interaction of conflicting ideas that students become stronger critical and analytical thinkers. Diversity of thought sharpens our ideas by making us see the world more holistically. The Narratives Dinner was an attempt to achieve that noble goal. Far from being a violent event, it epitomized our shared educational values.
ESJP’s hostility toward peaceful dialogue is ahistorical and laughable to most Israelis and Palestinians alike. The very foundation of the landmark 1993 Oslo Accords was mutual understanding and dialogue. As Uri Savir, Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo process notes in “Israel A Nation is Born: On the Brink of Peace,” when reminiscing about his relationship with Palestinian diplomat Abu Ala, “We told each other our personal histories … and slowly we developed a common language. … Creating Palestinian-Israeli chemistry is not only the essence of negotiations, it’s also the essence of the agreements that were born out of these negotiations.” The documentary continues with the narrator stating that “as trust grew, both sides comprised towards reconciliation and mutual recognition.”
While ESJP shudders at the possibility of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, these conversations have occurred not only in Oslo, but also on college campuses. At Cornell University (N.Y), Yossi Klein Halevi, author of “Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor,” and Mohammad Darawshe, a leading expert on Jewish-Arab relations, appeared before a large group of students on October 30, to deliver a clear message of mutual understanding. Darawshe stated we must all “have the courage to talk to each other and not to … indulge in self-righteousness.” He added that we “need to take the harder route; the route of dialogue is harder than speaking to yourself and among your own.” Emory could learn from Halevi and Darawshe’s joint event.
The day after ESJP declared that they’d refuse to be a part of any dialogue, the Narratives Dinner, arranged by a Jewish student and a Muslim student, took place — with some ESJP members present. The event’s stated aim to “bring together the Emory community to engage in dialogue on personal experiences with the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” was realized. People of vastly different backgrounds with different perspectives came together in good faith and respectfully discussed the very personal stories and connections to the conflict. It was a big win for the students present, and a bigger win for our democracy.
We believe that dialogue should be the beginning of a process on college campuses that can bring diverse sides together in considering issues of peace in the Middle East. As exemplified at Oslo in 1993, sometimes real change can only happen far from the land between the river and the sea. We are 6,000 miles away. We might not be change makers yet, but we should all be willing to acknowledge the privilege of that distance, to breathe and engage in honest and difficult conversation with those who disagree.
Brett L. Kleiman (20C) is from Houston and is the former president of the Young Democrats of Emory. Max Rotenberg (21C) is from Washington, D.C. and is the former Hillel Israel chair.
Opinion Editor Zach Ball (21C) previously served as president of Emory Students for Justice in Palestine and was not involved in editing this op-ed.